David Cameron will receive his copy of the Leveson report later today, and will meet twice with Nick Clegg to discuss its contents: once this evening, and again as part of a coalition committee tomorrow. There will be a Commons statement tomorrow at about 2.30 from the Prime Minister, but Nick Robinson reports this morning that the Deputy Prime Minister is considering speaking after his colleague if the pair fail to agree on the government’s response to the Leveson report.
Those won’t be the only tensions over the recommendations from the Inquiry, though. Scores of Tories are among the 86 MPs,who have signed a letter which today pleads with the government to not introduce state-backed regulation of newspapers. It bears the signatures of all the Conservative members of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee. The letter was co-ordinated by a new member of that committee, Conor Burns, and Labour grandee David Blunkett. It says:
‘As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning. It is redress that is vital, not broader regulation. Statutory regulation would require the imposition of state licensing – abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution.’
This is a response to the letter in the Guardian from 42 Conservative MPs calling for statutory regulation: since its publication, the number of Tories supporting this change has grown to around 70, although one MP, Chris Skidmore, has since said he regrets signing it. It exposes a damaging split in the Conservative party that goes all the way to the Cabinet, with ministers such as Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and William Hague all believing the government should ‘err on the side of freedom’, to quote the Foreign Secretary. The point that Burns and Blunkett’s group of MPs is making is that you can’t have a little bit of state regulation: as Fraser said in his column last week, you can’t be a little bit pregnant.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that he rather boxed himself into a corner when, as he was giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, he said: ‘I accept we can’t say it’s the last-chance saloon all over again. We’ve done that.’ The least troublesome course he could take would be to accept a beefed-up self regulation model of the kind developed by PCC chair Lord Hunt, which would give a new regulator powers that the PCC never enjoyed, while hanging statutory regulation as a threat over the newspaper industry if it fails in its last chance at remaining in the last chance saloon. But even that will enrage many on the other side, who will see the decision as the Prime Minister bowing to the furious press. Even if Clegg does not speak in the debate tomorrow, yawning splits will open up across the House and particularly in the Tory party, whatever Cameron chooses to do.